Author: C.S.

Deborah Bennett Elfers

Deborah Bennett Elfers

Deborah Bennett Elfers

You say you were practically born on a boat – a lobster boat – and grew up sailing around your “neighborhood.” But then you went to study opera at a Conservatory. How did you come to have such diverse interests at that early age?

I grew up in a little town on the coast of Massachusetts, and from my very earliest days, I went out on the boat with my father, a lobsterman. I used to beg to go with him, which was no small accomplishment for a child, as we would be out there for hours and hours, in all kinds of weather. It was very much a work-boat. But I loved it! I learned to put the wooden pegs in the lobster claws, with my bare little hands, and dreamed of being, like my Aunt Dotty, a very capable lobsterwoman in her own right. And as I grew, I learned the ways of the ocean from my father, a skilled seaman, and by watching him, I began to understand the true meaning of self-sufficiency and confidence. No matter the weather, or the size of the swells, I always felt completely safe with my father at the helm.

As for my sailing days as a child, we had a little fleet of Sunfishes in the cove near my grandmother’s summer-house. None of the children were very skilled, at least in the elegant way of racing, but that didn’t matter much as the object of the game was to ram the other boats until they capsized – the last one still on board being the winner. We had the run of the cove, and were on the boats from the moment the tides allowed. It was a lot of fun! I couldn’t have imagined way back then that I’d become so passionate about sailboat racing.

The singing became an interest when I was about 12 years old. I started watching “The Partridge Family” on TV, and my parents got me an album of theirs for Christmas. Somehow I learned that the mother on the show (Shirley Jones) had had a career on Broadway doing musical theater, and, being the curious type, I got from the library a recording of her singing the lead in “Oklahoma.” Upon the first listening, I promptly fell in love with musical theater, and never looked back. I really liked the physical sensation of singing, even then, and so I joined the church choir and sang as much as I could. I sang everywhere. By chance, we lived just down the street from a wonderful couple who taught voice at the New England Conservatory, and so when I turned 13, I walked the 3 miles down the road, knocked on the door, and asked them to teach me. They must have liked what they heard, because that started a long and storied collaboration; they were my teachers for the next 15 years, and became life-long guides and mentors.

You might think that the lobstering and the singing would lead mutually exclusive lives. Not so! I used to love to sit well forward, on the end of the pulpit, as my father took the boat out past Saquish Head and the Gurnet to where his traps lay. It was a long trip. And I would sing all the way there, the wind and the waves and the drone of the motor as my accompaniment. It wasn’t until relatively recently that my father confided that he loved hearing me singing (upwind of him) as we motored out! Go figure. During all those years, I had no idea he could hear any of it. To this day, the rhythm of the ocean is always with me when I sing, and the self-sufficiency and confidence I saw in my father is very much a part of my performing mindset.

You talk about how your opera training and performance experience has helped you as a sailor, but do you think there’s anything you learned from sailing at such an early age that translated into your success in music?

As I said before, I think it’s having been taught, by example, of self sufficiency and confidence – that belief that if you want something badly enough, you should find a way to make it happen for yourself. My father showed me those things on the water, and my mother showed me with her indomitable spirit for giving back to our community with countless hours of volunteering, often taking on and fighting for important projects that wouldn’t have come to fruition without her energy and capable guidance.

In your blog your love of sailing comes through loud and clear. “So, please send a prayer to the weather Gods — I’m hoping we have a beautiful, blue-sky day, with a nice breeze, so we can sail around until dinner time!  I can hardly wait for that first sail together – to feel the tiller come alive in my hand as her sails fill with wind – always a nice bit of magic, don’t you think?”

Deborah Bennett Elfers

Deborah Bennett Elfers

What do you say to women who want to feel that same passion about something (anything!) but just don’t know where to look?

That’s a tough one. I’m doing a lot of reading and research currently on the topic of women and confidence. It seems to me, in sailing at least, that there’s a gap for women – and what I keep reading is that women seem to need to wait until they feel completely ready before they dare to jump in and start a new endeavor, or to reach for the next level, whether it’s in her professional life, or in learning something new. My advice would be to jump in and be that person who dares to try to make her dream a reality.

The bottom line is that you will never feel completely ready. If you wait for that day, it will never come. That’s what holds many women back from taking the next step, whether it’s asking for a promotion, or selling a new idea, or taking the helm of a racing boat. You need to give yourself permission to make mistakes, to not be perfect – and sometimes, even, to fail. In my life experiences, both as a sailor and as a singer, that’s the most powerful lesson I’ve learned.

Not knowing where to look to “find” your passion is a difficult question for me to answer, as I’ve always been lucky enough to be pulled in quite naturally by the things that have resonated with me throughout my life. I do think that sometimes it takes a while to realize your own personal strengths – and those can be a clue as to what you might develop as an interest going forward. After all, we all like doing the things we are good at, right? Also, expanding your network and meeting people from all walks of life is key – you never know who will inspire you, or why. Taking little steps, and trying new things will also help. If you’re interested in gardening, for example, you might try your hand at container plantings, and then help your friends with theirs. Those are the kinds of seemingly small sorts of actions that get the ball rolling. I mention this particular example, because that’s exactly the way a friend of mine started her very successful flower business. You never know until you try. Jump in.

Do you have a book in the works?

It’s interesting – you are the third person who has asked me that question recently. It’s not something I would have envisioned myself doing, but I’ve discovered that I really love to write, and so I wouldn’t rule it out. I love the way my brain feels when I write, and I most definitely enjoy the creative side of it. And I seem to have a lot to say!

Can you tell us about your teaching? Do teach both voice and sailing?

I’ve never taught voice, mainly because I never had a proper place to do so. And then I decided to have children, and they have been my main focus for many years. Now that they are older, I’ve begun to explore other things, like writing and sailboat racing, although as a mother, sometimes it’s hard to find the time for pursuing my own things. At the same time, however, I realize the importance of setting an example of “possibility” for my daughters. I want them to feel as though they can do anything they put their minds to, and that they believe that the power of their future is very much in their own hands.

I do teach sailing, occasionally, but right now my main focus is in finding ways to build our fleet, and in designing and offering training and educational seminars to those who are interested in becoming better racers. I find that giving people a framework, and creating a supportive community, can make a big difference in what they will dare to strive for – especially women.

What’s next for you?

I’m not entirely sure what the future will hold, but the idea of writing a book is intriguing, especially since people keep asking me about it, so I’ll probably explore that. Presently, I’m pretty busy with my children, working on my ever-evolving sailing blog, serving very actively as a Trustee of my alma mater, New England Conservatory of Music, and working as fleet captain at our Yacht Club, a role in which I take on fleet building, training and mentoring, and helping sailors who want to be involved in racing. As you can see, there’s quite a lot on my plate! Through my blog, I’ve met some very interesting people, and the future seems filled with possibility as we all contemplate the future of sailing as a sport. How exciting!

When she’s not sailing Deborah Bennett Elfers can be found at where she blogs about sailing —  the mindset, strategies, coaching, fleet building and other musings. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Jennifer Eklund and Kristin Yost

Kristin Yost (L) and Jennifer Eklund (R)

Kristin Yost (L) and Jennifer Eklund (R)

Thank you for agreeing to the interview! I admire both of you for your business savvy and how you’ve given the label “piano teacher” a whole new meaning. Can you tell us a little bit about your early piano lessons?

Jennifer: I started studying at the age of 6 and studied with a variety of teachers before finally settling with my primary instructor who I worked with for about 6 years before she retired. We had a wonderful rapport and she went to great efforts to expose me to all types of music but with classical music as the primary focus.  She was a wonderful, supportive teacher, and she helped mentor me at age 14 when I started teaching my own students. My teaching methods and style are based largely on how she taught.

Kristin: Like Jennifer, I began with lessons at age six. My mother asked me one night at dinner if I wanted to start taking piano lessons…she played and wanted nothing more than for me to learn as well, so I said yes. I still remember my first recital that following spring…I played three pieces, the first I don’t’ remember, and the second was called, “Down I Go, In the Snow”, literally 3 notes repeated with those exact words, and when I finished, nobody knew it was over! I remember the feeling of embarrassment or fear or both, so I then went into a rousing rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In with an overly zealous left hand accompaniment. I felt like I had some making up to do for the audience. Why on earth she let me play that 3-note ditty is beyond me!

After my first teacher retired (apparently it was a stressful year), I worked with two other teachers before settling down with my primary high school teacher, whom my father so fondly gave the nickname of Hitler to. She was wonderful; she set boundaries, she had expectations and propelled me forward faster than I could imagine. I think it’s interesting to note that the only one of my teachers prior to college that had formal training in piano was my first teacher, yet I still had a substantial performance scholarship for my undergraduate degree, and a full performance based scholarship in graduate school.

As a child, did you ever go through a period that you wanted to quit. What kept you going?

Jennifer: Absolutely! No endeavor is ever “fun” all the time. My parents were pretty strict about me getting in an hour of practice each day and there were often times that this was not my favorite chore because I would’ve rather been outside playing with my friends. In retrospect I’m glad they made me stick with it and once I started working and playing gigs at age 12 my motivation level never sagged. Funny how making a little money can turn your attitude around about things like practice!

Kristin: I think I asked to quit every day for three years. The breaking point came when I was in the 7th grade and my mother told me I actually COULD quit…If I  learned this particular arrangement of Thy Word, which was in Eb major and had a bunch of 16th notes (she could barely play it.) She gave me a two-week deadline and said that I could quit if I learned the piece to her satisfaction in under two weeks. I never practiced so much in my life! About three days later I had learned and to this day I still have the first page memorized. Her response was one I will never forget. “You just proved to me that you are too good to quit. We’re getting you a different teacher.” And that was that. She was right; the teacher they found me after this experience was the perfect teacher for me, right when I needed her.

Jennifer Eklund

Jennifer Eklund

You’re both tuned into the learning styles of the new generation. What advice would you give teachers who are struggling to keep students “on the bench”?

Jennifer: In my mind it’s all about the material and customizing lessons to fit the tastes and goals of each individual. If they hate what they’re playing why should they be motivated to practice? There is such a wide array of repertoire available nowadays that there’s just no reason for students to be unhappy with their pieces. If students are having a rough time keeping up their motivation because they’re simply tired and over-scheduled I always tell teachers to take the “deadlines” out of this endeavor. Make it clear to these types of students that piano can be their one “deadline-free” hobby that is done simply for their own enjoyment. That,  coupled with customizing the repertoire to suit their tastes is a great way to keep students in lessons.

Kristin: 90% of what we do as teachers is to give our students the right music at the right time. For me personally, I have an extremely low turnover in students and they all think they’re really good. ☺ If a teacher wants student retention, three things need to happen:

  1. Listen – listen to the child  and the parents. Do they value the same things you do?
  2. Lead – listening is important, but leading is more important (most of the time.) I think performance deadlines are important for 90% of students, so here is the calendar year that I have and all but insist all of my elementary and middle school students follow (HS students are completely different and priorities shift). Fall Recital in October, judged piece in November, Holiday House Concert in December, Pop Showcase with a band in late February/early May, Achievement Auditions (3 pieces) for a judge in April, as well as a Grammy Week where students have a friendly in-house competition with each other. They receive awards for this event, and are encouraged to dress up, etc…a concert for kids, if you will.
  3. Organize – I attribute my success with students to my level of organization. My shelves and desk drawer may not be organized, but their course of study is!

How did you meet?

Jennifer: Kristin and I met at MTNA in Anaheim in March of 2013. I specifically sought her out at her presentation after getting to know her a bit online in the Facebook piano teacher forums. I knew that we would be fast friends considering our similar backgrounds and teaching philosophies and I wasn’t wrong about that.

Kristin: I remember meeting at MTNA in Anaheim, but I remember seeking Jennifer out in the exhibit hall, not the other way around! She is probably right though – my memory rivals that of a squirrel.

What is your business background?

Jennifer: My business background comes from the all-important ‘school of experience.’  I read a lot of books about business strategies and marketing and am always paying close attention to businesses in all realms that are doing things that I admire.  Just as with music, the learning never stops!

Kristin: Ha! I grew up with parents who were third generation immigrant farmers, before the days of subsidies and incentives. Financial planning and working extremely hard are part of my DNA. I too read a lot of business, leadership and self-development books and surround myself with people who are smarter/more knowledgeable than me. (That’s really the secret.)

Jennifer Eklund (L) and Kristin Yost (R)

Jennifer Eklund (L) and Kristin Yost (R)

You’re both published authors. What led you down that path?

Jennifer: I started writing my Piano Pronto method series back in 2000 simply out of necessity. I was living and working abroad in Stockholm Sweden and didn’t have access to the materials that I was using in the U.S. with my students. I bought a copy of Sibelius notation software and started writing music for my students. I could have never imagined that 15 years later I would be running my own publishing company—but it’s been an amazing journey that is extremely gratifying.

Kristin: My book came at a time when talking about a financially viable career as a piano teacher was still taboo. The title actually came from a presentation at NCKP in 2007, to which Sam Holland actually gave me the name for. We were having lunch one day and I was telling him about the success I had my first year. It’s a story that I wish I had known before I created it, and then wanted it to be available as inspiration for others in the same boat. I used the philosophy, “done is better than perfect”, so just put it out there. I’m currently working on its second edition and can’t wait for it to come out this summer! My editor is great, there is a lot of content that has been added and ‘beefed up’, as well as handout examples galore.

Do you find time to keep up your own piano performance careers? In other words, do you still find time to practice?

Jennifer: I don’t spend as much time honing my own skills at the piano as I would like to and the professional performance aspect of my career is a chapter that is more or less closed. That being said I always make a point to get to the piano everyday and have a few pieces that I’m actively polishing.

Kristin: I do!  My background is classical and from the Lutheran church (I’m a really strong reader.) Then after college, I used to play with the Celebration Jazz Orchestra, which is the chair Norah Jones used to play in. I ‘play’ current music all the time, and am constantly teaching that repertoire, so I stay on my toes that way. The piano in my living room is an amazing instrument, so I ‘play’ a lot of classical music that I learned really well in college and graduate school, though rarely practice new classical literature.

I am also currently studying all of the Debussy and Chopin Preludes with Alfred Mouledous, my teacher from graduate school. He studied with Gieseking in Paris, so I am doing this primarily for the historical context, but also because it’s fun (not too hard) and I love Mr. Mouledous.

What’s next for both of you?

Jennifer: I plan to continue to grow the Piano Pronto brand and to keep writing and releasing new titles. Things are growing so fast with the company that it’s hard to even imagine where we’ll be a year from now. For the time being I’m just enjoying the process of carving out our niche in the publishing world. I also plan to spend more time on the road leading workshops for teacher associations and retail locations.  I really enjoy connecting with teachers and students at smaller events. Kristin and I have some plans to coordinate professional development events that will offer a different spin on the traditional conference—stay tuned for more details about that!

Kristin: The second edition of my book is a biggie, and I am looking forward to teaching the Current Trends course at SMU this coming spring for the Piano Performance and Pedagogy students. Jennifer and I are working on some development activities that I hope we are able to share with everyone very soon. It’s the next step in professional development for us piano teaching professionals!  In my immediate plans, this summer will be spent taking some time off to explore what is next for my career and personal goals while simply enjoying a slower pace.

Jennifer, what inspired you to take the self-publishing route?

Jennifer: I felt that the market needed materials that were fresh and different and that there was no way to accomplish that other than staying independent. I have never had a desire to have my materials edited down to fit the preferences of somebody else’s catalog. My voice as an arranger and composer is unique and the only way to maintain that voice was to do all the work myself.

What was the most challenging part of building a publishing company?

Jennifer: Hardcopy print publishing is an extremely expensive business endeavor with a ton of moving parts. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but have really enjoyed all of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Kristin Yost

Kristin Yost

Kristin, what advice would you give to a teacher who is dealing with Piano Teacher Burnout?

Kristin: This is not a simple question, and for me it requires significant maintenance and constant review. Every year during the spring (aka April and May), I contemplate my retirement on a secluded island with no kids, no music, no taxes and a luxurious lifestyle that I don’t have to pay for. That’s one dream, and the other involves a mountain with the same basic luxurious amenities, free cost of living and 55 degree climate. They are very similar. I now realize this is my ‘escape dream’, which is a reaction to the craziness of what it means to be a really great teacher in the spring. I don’t ‘really’ want to live in those places for the rest of my life, but I do want that solitude both of them could bring to me, and I truthfully want them in small doses. Here’s what I have found works for me to avoid sustained burnout:
  • Schedule breaks. Summer break, fall break, winter break, spring break, etc…it’s a time to recharge. It’s also really important for teachers and creatives to have down time/unstructured time.
  • Summer. Have a reduced schedule over a period of half to 3/4 of the summer weeks the public schools in your area have. This still gives you time off and keeps the students going.
  • Have a non-musical hobby. For me this is reading, long walks with audio books, watching TV shows, going to movies and shopping.
  • Repertoire Lists. At the end of the year, seeing the work you and your students have done throughout the last 9 months is incredible. For me, it’s motivating, especially when I see a break on the horizon. Look at all ‘we’ accomplished!
  • Read. I love self development and leadership books, as well as the free (somewhat less than literary classic) romance novels Kindle provides.
  • Policies. Have policies in place that keep 90-95% of your client base updated regularly. Establish boundaries such as ‘office hours’ and when people can expect you to respond. Too often people can text or email at 9am and expect you to reply by 9:04am. Have financial policies in place and follow them, so that you feel you are being valued in that way.
  • Energy. List your energy suckers and make strides to eliminate them. This could be billing/invoicing, bank deposits, scheduling, etc…figure out solutions so they are no longer draining you.
  • Energyx2. List your motivators and make strides to add more of them in your life. This could be more performances, more students who are creative, ensembles, etc…
  • Mindset. Let’s face it, the person we most have conversations with in our lives, is ourselves. Make sure you are the person you want to spend the most amount of time with…Make sure you truly love enriching lives through music at the piano, you enjoy communication, you can handle ‘exceptions to the rule’, you like making decisions, reading budgets, reviewing financials and more…that’s what a piano teacher does.
This is what I do, and so far I’ve been able to maintain an incredibly large (musically and financially successful) private studio. I’ve taught 7 days per week, 6 days per week and effective May 17th, 5 days per week! So far, so good. 🙂

Jennifer Eklund is the author of the Piano Pronto method book series, and the owner of Piano Pronto Publishing, a full-scale publishing house offering educational materials for students of all ages and levels. You can see and hear all of her works at  You can also connect with her on her Piano Pronto Discussion Forum on Facebook at:

An active performer, author and teacher, Kristin Yost brings her experience and expertise to piano teachers around the world. “How I Made $100K My First Year As a Piano Teacher” is now a requirement for some of the top pedagogy courses in the country. It is availabe for purchase from or  Learn more at her websites at and

Jennifer Lighty

Jennifer Lighty

Jennifer Lighty

Jen, you talk about your life before you met your mentor 14 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What moved you to take a new path? Was it a gradual change or was there one particular moment when something clicked with you?

Before I met my mentor, a healer named Maria DeMarco, I was on a very destructive path, abusing myself with alcohol, drugs and food. I was traumatized from childhood sexual abuse and sought out abusive situations as an adult, constantly putting myself in risky situations  with men that included being physically abused. I cycled in and out of extreme depression. If I was not really depressed, then I was just down. Most of my thoughts were negative and I didn’t have faith in anything or believe that life was worth living. I wasn’t exactly a sleepwalker, because I was aware of how bad things were, but I was floundering around in my own pain and unaware there was any way out of it. I believe there is a good chance I would have killed myself if I hadn’t changed course.

I met Maria a few days after the bombing of the World Trade Center at a ceremonial fire she was called to hold on Block Island, where she was visiting at the time. She spoke of thanking the souls of the people who had died in the planes and in the towers, including those of the attackers, saying that they had chosen to sacrifice themselves in order to awaken humanity. It was the first exposure I had to the idea that the soul has an agenda that is often not what a person would seek out for themselves because the ego is so invested in the body’s survival. It was a revolutionary moment that has stayed with me since. It was the first shift that opened me up to the possibility that we are never truly victims, that our soul chooses some situations for us because that is how we need to grow. Sometimes this growth will involve a sacrifice as great as death or in being the perpetrator of a crime for which we will be vilified, like the terrorists who perpetrated the World Trade Center bombing.

The big moment for me came a year into working with Maria. I was still drinking, still depressed, but the work with her was opening me up intellectually and energetically. I was still depressed and still felt an overwhelming unwillingness to be in my body that led to suicidal thoughts. One day driving down the road I was thinking “I just want out.” As I thought this, a deer dashed in front of my car. I saw another in the rearview window crossing the road behind me. I narrowly missed the one in front. They both disappeared into the graveyard to my left. I could have crashed into her, injuring, possibly killing, her or myself. I knew when I missed her that I had chosen to live on a soul level. I quit drinking and began the work of recovering my joy and seeking to fulfill my soul’s purpose at that moment.

When it comes to your mentoring practice, is there a common theme that you find in the clients that come to you for help?

I find that people are coming to me who want to learn how to connect with the natural and spirit world through their creativity. I began working with poets, but the work has been expanding to include many others who I am calling creative seekers-people who are looking for a different way to relate to themselves and our planet.

When you work with students, in your 30-Day Poetry Challenge for example, what advice do you give them to keep that inner critic quiet long enough for them to feel comfortable getting that first draft down on paper? 

I really encourage people to connect with their body’s wisdom. In a concrete way, this involves not just reading what they’ve written aloud, but composing aloud. It is easy to get disembodied as a writer and imitate the voices we have in our heads as readers. I encourage people to walk, practice yoga, dance–all of these physical activities will help free the voice and quiet the inner critic. One other thing I do is tell people to write with their non-dominant hand. I learned this from the poet Marie Howe. It’s a wonderful way to bypass the intellect and go straight into the imaginal realms of intuition and body-knowledge that is difficult to access when we are trapped in our heads.

I understand the Medicine Wheel is a walking practice. How can we novices begin to incorporate that in our every day lives?

A simple way is to orient yourself according to the directions within the places you inhabit the most. Your home, your office, etc. For instance, do you where north is? Is there a lake to the south of you? What direction is the wind coming from? I lived many years on Block Island where the old timers knew out of necessity what a northeast wind would bring versus a southwesterly breeze. It was just a part of daily conversation to be aware of the weather, so I was lucky to have this early influence.

What advice would you give to the woman who may suddenly find herself with an empty-nest, a job she’s unhappy with and no idea what to do next?

My advice would be to cultivate the practice of surrender. It is easy to intellectualize your circumstances by looking Buddhaat them through the lens of soul needs versus ego desires, but I found once I started to get really deep into the process of spiritual growth that I had to go through the emotional work required to open my heart that didn’t necessarily go along with the understanding that I was co-creating my circumstances with my soul in order to evolve. If you can surrender to feeling your emotions you will find that you will be more present with yourself and the moment. This will decrease anxiety that keeps us locked into a future scenario and help us receive guidance from a higher power as to what to do next. Again, I find that moving my body helps. Yoga has been invaluable for me and I recently underwent a course of underwater rebirthing sessions through a practice called janzu this past winter in Mexico that opened me up to a whole new level of self-acceptance of where I was. Before janzu, I was actually in yet another cycle of anxiety about where to go and what to do next. I was able to let go of that and opportunities presented themselves to me that I could never imagined before I allowed myself to surrender and trust.

What does your typical day look like?

In the past year I have made the shift to self-employment, so my typical day varies a good bit because I am not a person who gravitates toward routines. However, more days than not I find myself beginning the day with yoga, even just practicing a few sun salutations before I engage with others helps. I have had a long journey with physical illness, so I make a point of caring for my body with nourishing drink and food. I like to sip a cup of warm water and lemon, then drink some green tea. Then I begin reading and writing, corresponding with students and colleagues. In the late afternoon I usually get outside. For the past 6 months I was in Mexico, so I went to the beach. Now I am back in New England where this is not yet possible, so I go for a walk! I cook myself a nourishing meal, then sometimes write again or read, watch a movie. I spend most of my time alone. I enjoy it. It has taken me a long time to enjoy my own company and not constantly be seeking love and approval outside myself, so now I really revel in this time alone.

What’s next for you?

I have a lot of projects going right now! I have a chapbook coming out from Finishing Line Press. It’s called “Breaking Up With The Moon.” I’m not sure yet of the publication date. I am working on a full length poetry collection and on a book based on my 30 Day Poetry Challenge. I am currently without a fixed address and see a lot more travel in my future!

Jennifer Lighty is an award-winning poet and teacher whose work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and been published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Verse Daily,  Thrush Poetry Journal, Earthlines, The Island Review, The North American Review, Poet Lore, Off The Coast, Room, Bamboo Ridge and many other journals. In 2103, she received a grant from The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.  The focus of her work is to help creators develop more intimate connections with themselves and Earth. Her work is grounded in permaculture, deep ecology, and archetypal psychology. She is committed to helping others transform their wounds into gifts that can serve the world. Visit her online at

Shannon Mattern

Shannon Mattern

Shannon Mattern

Shannon, tell us a little bit about your life before WP-BFF.

I’m that girl who has always taken the safe path. Get good grades, don’t make waves, go to college, earn a degree in Communications so I can work in any industry, get that first job out of college and slowly climb the corporate ranks while paying off those student loans. Meet a nice guy, get a dog, buy a house, get married (in that order)! Until one day you find yourself sitting in your beige office with no windows at your beige desk, doing the same report that you’ve done every month for the past 8 years and start to have major anxiety that this can’t be all there is to life… That you’re 35 years old and you’re still being told where to be every day, what you can and can’t wear, what you can and can’t say – all so that you can take your fixed salary home every two weeks to pay bills and try to enjoy that short amount of freedom you have until its time to sit in traffic again for a half hour to drive 8 miles to work… So all in all, a pretty vanilla, normal midwestern woman’s life!

What inspired you to take the leap from business employee to entrepreneur?

I have always enjoyed building websites. It’s one of the things I specialized in at Ohio State, and that’s the key skill I brought to the table throughout my career. But what inspired me to think that I could do it as my own business was a diet book. I’m not even kidding. I’ve always struggled with my weight and with fitness, so a couple years ago I was reading yet another “diet” book trying to find that magic bullet that would give me a plan that I could fit into my “active social life”. The book is called 30 Day Push by Chalene Johnson, which walks you through identifying your priorities, dreams and goals in the areas of health, home, work and relationships – but the key piece is identifying the one goal that makes all the others possible, which she calls a PUSH goal – when you accomplish this PUSH goal it makes all the other goals possible.

So as I’m brainstorming and thinking about my perfect day and how I really want to live my life and how I would incorporate healthy eating and exercise, a key theme that kept popping up is being in control of my time. Not on a the clock. Being free to work from anywhere, and earn an income doing what I love. So I started to actually tell people when they asked what I did for a living that I was a web designer – and while I quickly discovered that doing freelance web design was just like having more bosses, I was able to come up with a way to empower people to build their own websites while serving as a teacher and a resource for them – and that’s how the Free 5 Day Website Challenge and WP*BFF came to be.

Would you consider yourself a techie or was your background in something else?

I’m a total tech nerd, but I’m right-brained too. I can code, but I don’t speak in code. But I really think whether someone is techy or not boils down to persistence. How much effort are you willing to put into figuring something out? How many times will you try again if something’s not working right? How deep into Google will you search to find an answer? I don’t think people are techie or not techie. I think they are either confident they can learn new things or they’re not. And that’s something that I try to help people with in the Free 5 Day Website Challenge.

What advice would you give a woman who is unhappy in her job and itching to do something on her own but doesn’t have any idea where to start?

I would tell her to write down everything she absolutely loves to do. Then I would have her look at that list, and identify the one thing that comes really easy to her but she knows is difficult for other people. Maybe she’s awesome dealing with difficult kids. Maybe she’s an amazing cook. Maybe she knits amazing things for her friends and family. Maybe all her friends ask her to help them with their resumes.

Then I’d have her think of how she could teach that thing to others online. What type of content could she create to help people that struggle with that thing? Tutorial videos, e-books, systems.

I’d have her write down 10 ideas on that thing a day for at least a week. And then I’d tell her to come and take the Free 5 Day Website Challenge (shameless plug!) to help her build her website, start sharing that information with people for free to build her mailing list, and start conversations with her subscribers to identify what type of paid product or service she could offer to those people. And then slowly over time, she’ll build up enough of a clientele that she can quit that soul-sucking job of hers.

Oh, and this might be exactly what I’m doing at WP*BFF too… 😉

What do you find most challenging about running your own business?

I’m still working full time, so at first I had a hard time making time for it. But once I got that figured out, I started to have a hard time unplugging. I still struggle with that. I also struggle with the right mix of free and paid. I give away a LOT of value for free, and everything I’ve ever read or heard tells me it’s going to pay off eventually – but it’s hard to start and not make money right away. Thankfully I do have a job and a boss that supports my schedule. I’m committed to building relationships and providing value, and hopefully it will pay off later. You always hear of overnight successes but not all the hard work that’s gone into them – I’m still in the hard-work phase!

What is your typical day like? Do you work early in the morning? Stay up late at night?

I wake up at 5:30 and get ready for work. Then I check in on WP*BFF, do James Altucher’s recommended daily practice of expressing gratitude and writing down 10 ideas. Then I go to work where I’m the IT person for professional nursing organization. I’m home by 3:30, walk the dog, make dinner and then by 6 I settle in to work on WP*BFF in the evenings. Or go out for dinner and drinks with my husband and our friends depending on the night… I like to be in bed by 10ish.

What’s your big dream for WP-BFF?

My big dream for WP*BFF is to empower as many women as I can to start their own online business by simplifying one of the most difficult and costly barriers to entry – the website. In addition to the Free 5 Day Website Challenge, I want to hold online workshops, and develop more online courses to create some passive incomes streams. I even envision a weekend seminar some day that pulls together all the experts one would need to get their website off the ground – branding experts, graphic designers, copywriters, business consultants to help with creating and packaging services, and more. I can’t wait to see where I am in 6 months!

Shannon Mattern is a 35 year-old secret WordPress nerd who lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Floyd and their 10 year old Labernese, Grace. Her most favorite thing to do when she’s not at work or working on WP*BFF is to hook up the camper (well, her husband does that part) and head out to Buckeye Lake to go boating with friends or take her 4-wheeler down to Southeastern Ohio to ride ATV trails. When it’s too cold for that, she can found on her couch under a blanket watching questionable reality television. Visit Shannon’s website or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Jacky Colliss Harvey

Jacky Colliss Harvey

Jacky Colliss Harvey

Jacky, like many artists your career has taken many twists and turns from jobs in art history and museum publishing to actor and life model. Did you always think of yourself as a writer?

Yes, always – and I have always written, too, although now my other writerly (and published) friends tell me I have to start referring to myself as ‘an author’, instead. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in creating some sort of narrative, from daydreams as a child to trying my hand at short stories to novels as I got older, I was always making up stories and as soon as I knew how, writing them down. I still think the best words in the English language are ‘Once upon a time’, and I have always loved books as objects too – I am never without something to read, and as a child used to take my favourites with me as companions. I was a bookworm from the moment I learned to read, devouring everything I could get my eyes on. One very wonderful teacher at my junior school arranged for me to have access to the senior school library, as I had read everything the junior library had to offer by the end of year two. If you’re a writer-in-embryo, access like that can be life-changing, and I thank her for it still.

I also always had a very active imagination – over-active, my parents might have said. This could at times make the world a very scary place to grow up in. Writing stories about it, even in my head, was a way of using narrative to control my surroundings and empower myself within them. I think many, many writers start writing from some similar impulse

Tell us about the moment when you decided to write Red. From your background in art history to your beautiful red hair, it seems like it was inevitable.

You learn a lot about yourself in the process of writing a book. Reading back though RED now I can see so many themes in it that have always fascinated me – the parallels between one age and the next, the unchangingness, both good and bad, of human nature. So I guess you’re right – there was an inevitability to it. But the actual moment of inspiration – the lightbulb over head – happened while I was sitting in a sales conference, watching another publisher present, and set myself as a mental exercise the task of coming up with a similar titles to theirs. Shazam. A history of the redhead!

What is your favorite genre to write? To read?

I have hugely enjoyed writing RED, to an extent that has surprised me – I always thought of myself as a fiction writer before. The discipline and detective work of creating a narrative from historical fact and scientific investigation completely possessed me as I was writing. And being on such a tight deadline (contract signed in April of ’14, delivery that December) really kept me moving along – every single evening and weekend for 9 months was devoted to nothing else but. I think it also changed my writing style – I didn’t have time to be discursive, to set the scene; I had to plunge straight in with each chapter, each sub-section, and once it was done, get on with the next.

I will read anything, literally – the backs of cereal packets at the breakfast table, adverts on the tube… fiction-wise I love big, bold fat books that take chances: Dickens, George Eliot, a lot of C19th American fiction, the French novelists. I adore Hilary Mantel. I read and re-read her writing, as I do Dickens, just for the pleasure of rolling her sentences around in my head. I loved The Crimson Petal and the White. I loved H is for Hawk.

Recently however I have been reading Patrick Modiano (my partner is his translator), a very different writer – spare, and elusive, haunting. It doesn’t really matter for me what it is, as long as it’s not crap – my idea of hell would be to be locked in a room with nothing to read but a Jeffrey Archer. Or a Dan Brown.

What’s your typical day like? Do you write early in the morning? Do you have a morning ritual?

I work full-time at present, so my writing was usually in the evenings. I’d get home, change into my writing gear – ancient track pants, wash-dead t-shirt (oh the glamour!), make a cup of tea and start. I always had a goal to get to – write till 9pm, say, or finish this section or that. I’m very lucky in that my employers have been so invested and supportive of the idea of my writing this book, right from the start, so allowed me a month’s unpaid leave to finish it, in December. During that month I would get up with my partner at the unearthly hour of 5.40 or so (I am so not an early bird), go running with him round Prospect Park in Brooklyn, come back to breakfast, then sit down and start writing. I’d nap at about 2pm or so, to give my brains a chance to cool down, and allow my subconscious to resolve whatever bits of writing I was unhappy with, then tap away again for the rest of the afternoon. That seemed to suit me very nicely as a routine.

What do you do to de-stress? Yoga or meditation? Running?

Running. I am not at all a sporty type, but running really suits me. It’s solitary and anti-social and it re-sets me in some way. The process of running – one foot in front of the other, just keep going – is very similar to the act of setting words down on a page. And just like writing, the more of it you do, the better you get at it.

Tell us a little about the agent/publisher submission process.

I met my agent at a party in a bookshop. I found myself in conversation with one of her other authors, on – you guessed it – the subject of red hair, and at the end of the conversation suggested that there might be a book in it. And my agent, Chelsey Fox, agreed. It was a huge stroke of good luck. I put together a proper proposal for her, and we had interest from a couple of UK publishers at once. Then Black Dog & Leventhal, came along. Black Dog really excel at taking niche and making it mainstream. Again, I was very lucky. I now have two more publishers for the book – Allen & Unwin in the UK, and Terralannoo in Holland. More luck – but also, I hope and think, the result of this being the kind of subject that people just ‘get’, instantly, and whose potential they can see at once.

How has your life changed now with the book coming out?

It’s got very interesting and very full. These days the work once you have written a book has hardly begun. My book has a FB page, I have had to learn to tweet; I have had to learn to publicise myself, and to pursue every connection I can. I’ve given talks, I’ve done podcasts, and next month I will be recording the audio-book version of RED in London. It’s full-on!

What can you say to encourage women who don’t have the time or the family support to sit down and write that book that they’ve been dreaming of writing?

If you are a writer, and not writing, you are only half living. Be selfish. Make the time, however difficult, however unpopular it makes you, however many invitations you have to turn down. Glue arse to chair and do it. Prioritise it over everything. You may be surprised at the interest and support people give you – the idea of someone writing is hugely intriguing to most folk; they want you to finish and they want to share in the process, too. Friends will get used to the fact that you’re a hermit; they will understand. But you have to be fierce about it; you have to turn those invitations down, you have to claim ‘me’ time, and that is something many women find hard to do. Our culture kinda frowns on it – most unfairly.

Some years ago I also found attending a writing class was hugely helpful. It created that ‘me’ time, for three hours in the evening, once a week. I would recommend that.

What’s next for you?

Oh good question! Come October, by which time RED will have been published in the US, the UK, and Holland, a week on a beach, slathered in factor 50, without a single literary thought in my head. And then – well, my hope is that RED does well enough to make a Book 2 possible. I have a number of ideas for a follow-up, one of which really seems to snag people’s liking, and which I have started noodling about with already. But I’ll say no more about that now – mustn’t jinx it!

Jacky Colliss Harvey is a writer and editor. She read English at Cambridge University and Art history at the Courtauld Institute. She has worked in museum publishing for the last twenty years and is known as a commentator and reviewer, speaking in both the U.K. and abroad on the arts and their relation to popular culture. At the same time, her red hair has also found her an alternative career as a life model and a film extra playing everything from a society lady in Atonement to a Parisian whore in Bel-Ami. She lives in London. (Pre-order RED here.)

Catherine Storing

Catherine Storing

Catherine Storing

Tell us about your childhood and what brought you to America.

I grew up in the Caribbean – The Dominican Republic to be exact. Growing up in the Caribbean was great and hard all at the same time.

I grew up going to the beach year around – warm water, palm trees and all the coconut water you could drink, sounds idyllic right? Well the flip side of the coin was that I was picked on and bullied because I did not look like everybody else. My hair was crazy curly and I loved it. However I was “encouraged” to wear my hair straight like everybody else. Then I was “too tall” and “too skinny”. Needless to say those experiences shaped my self esteem and confidence.

Luckily my family moved to the US in my late teens and here I was accepted as I was created: fearfully and wonderfully made. Little by little my self esteem and confidence were restored and I started to become the woman I was created to be. I am so glad I went through those experiences because now I get to help women that like me have been told their uniqueness need not be so unique, conform and look like everybody else. I call myself a beauty highlighter, it is my pleasure to shed light to beauty that is dormant and almost hidden. It is a privilege to see woman shine from the inside out after they work with me.

Catherine Storing

Catherine Storing

I loved sewing all through my teen years. When did you learn how to sew? Who taught you?

I learned to sew back in 2004, working with a designer that showed me all about sewing, design, fabric, the works. I fell in love with sewing hard, and don’t get me started with fabric!

Tell us about the first time you sold something you created.

I have been making something from very early on, I did craft fairs selling decorations and things. The first item I sold was a skirt I designed and made. It was an amazing feeling to get paid for doing something I love.

What is your inspiration for your new clothing line?

My upcoming fashion line got inspired by several things, one not seeing clothing out there that was tailored, stylish, not crazy expensive and modest. I believe women can dress classy, stylish, and colorful without compromising their values and morals. Also, I will be using this clothing line to create jobs in my beloved island for both Dominicans and Haitians. Who says style and fashion have to be frivolous and without purpose? This is a clothing line with a purpose.

You’re a writer, a coach, a designer, a speaker. How do you do it all? Tell us about your typical day.

Thank you. Yes, I do it all…but not at the same time. That is the trick, to keep the balance……or try to anyway. My typical day is never the same. I wake up early-ish to read my bible and pray. Then I take my daughter to school. From there the day is just crazy: working on whatever is due – I am a firm believer in giving myself deadlines. It’s what drives me to push beyond what I can do.

Were you always an entrepreneur or did you work at a regular job while you built your coaching business?

I think I have always been both, corporate America has been a part of my life. The key again is the balance. I have worked, written, spoken in front of hundreds of people, designed clothing, coached. I believe you have to do whatever it takes to see your dreams and projects become a reality.

Styling Faith by Catherine Storing

Styling Faith by Catherine Storing

You are a very confident woman. What advice would you give someone who might be stuck in a job they’re not happy with?

Thank you. That was not always the case. I am glad I did not give up when things got hard – and they always did. Keeping your eye on the prize is key. Go to the job with the mentality that it is where you are supposed to be until the time is right to strike on your own. Use time and don’t let time use you. Plan your day, I am big fan of targeted to-do lists: a list of items that will further your vision and will keep you on track.

What’s next for you?

Right now I am working on my second book – Styling Faith: The Complete Style Guide. It is a compilation of my 18 years of styling, along with experts in the fields of: make-up, nutrition, fitness, hair, and much more. The book comes out on my 39th birthday – May 20th. You can find it here.


Catherine Storing is an author, coach, designer, consultant and stylist. Read more of her story here and be sure to follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson (photo by James Eppy)

Your life has taken some twists and turns. Musician, writer, teacher, concert presenter, foodie, (and mom) … how do you juggle it all? Or do you just do one thing at a time?

I suppose the simple answer is that I don’t sit still for long! (except when practising the piano). I am rarely bored and I get a tremendous amount of enjoyment and stimulation from combining my various activities. I think being busy, in a positive way, can be energising and exciting, and I always wake up thinking “what shall I do today?”

In reality, I would not have been able to take on all these activities while my son was a young child. Now that he’s nearly 17 and reasonably independent, I have the time and opportunity to do more, including evening activities such as reviewing and hosting concerts. When he was a born, I took the decision to stay at home to look after him, and I’m glad I did. But when he went to school full time I began to think about new ways to fill my time. I had begun to play the piano again (after a long absence during which I was working in art and academic publishing and bookselling, getting married, settling down) and it was by chance that I became a piano teacher when a friend asked me to teach her daughter. It was appealing because I could do it at home.

In recent years, I’ve hooked up with some great people, mostly through my musical activities, and this had opened up more avenues and opportunities. I remain very open-minded, receptive and excited by what life has to offer.

Do you have a daily routine? I suppose your teaching schedule dictates your day, but are you an early riser or do you burn the midnight oil?

When one works from home (most of the time) I think it’s important to have a routine to give structure to the day. I tend to get up early to do the “mum” activities of making sure the teenage son gets off to college on time and various other “reality tasks”, and then from around 8am I spend about 1.5 hours practising. Then I go for a swim, which I regard as “mental practising” because I use the time to think about the music I’m working on or ponder writing projects. I practise again for about 1.5 hours after lunch and then teach 4 days a week from 4.30pm for a couple of hours each day (I have 12 students, plus various occasional adult students). In between these “fixed”/regular activities, I do a job in central London on a Monday morning, and also may take a morning in town to review an exhibition or attend a seminar or other event connected to my teaching and performing.

I do stay up quite late. Evenings are time with my family, even if it’s just lolling on the sofa watching Netflix (!), and later in the evening I tend to read articles I’ve saved from Twitter or Facebook on my iPad.

I find it fascinating that you are affected by synaesthesia when you play or listen to music. Can you tell us a little more about that? Does it ever interfere with your enjoyment of music?

Far from it! I think the synaesthesia enhances my enjoyment of music. I see colours when I hear and read music and each musical key has

Frances Wilson and Lang Lang

With Lang Lang at the launch of the Lang Lang Piano Academy tutor books

its own distinct colour, which is absolutely unchanging. I’ve been aware of the ‘condition’ (I hesitate to use that word because I don’t regard it as an encumbrance) since I was a young child and it extends beyond music to numbers, letters, days of the week and months of the year. I haven’t met many other musicians who have the same form of synaesthesia as me (“grapheme synaesthesia”) but I know Messiaen, Scriabin and Liszt were all fellow synaesthetes of the same type, and it’s no accident that I adore the piano music of these composers.

You also blog as the Demon Cook. What do you like to cook (or bake) the most?

I find cooking very therapeutic, especially after a day spent practising and teaching. There is something very comforting and relaxing about stirring a risotto or making a curry. I love Middle Eastern food and tend to make something in my tagine each week. I also love Indian, Italian and Spanish food. Lately, my son (who is training to be a chef) and I have been experimenting with sushi and Japanese noodle dishes. I regard food as a very sharing, social thing and I enjoy having people round for supper to talk and eat.

What do you do for relaxation? Do you meditate? Exercise?

I swim and I walk. There is a lovely park close to my house with deer and parakeets, and across the other side of the park is the royal palace of Hampton Court which has beautiful gardens. I don’t meditate – I suspect I am too impatient to sit still long enough! I like to meet up with girlfriends for coffee and chat – that’s good relaxation as it takes my brain away from the music and it’s important to engage with people outside of the musical community to prevent one becoming too self-absorbed. The world of music is wonderful, but being a pianist can be lonely and sometimes one can feel trapped in a gilded cage. We have a regular arrangement with a good friend who comes for supper most weekends. I love cooking for him and my family and I enjoy the conviviality of having people at my dinner table for good food and conversation.

You also write about art? Do you ever draw or paint?
I used to do a lot of drawing and painting when I was at school. My mother is an artist and art historian ( and my interest in art developed thanks to her. I enjoy writing about art – it requires a different approach to writing about music, though people have told me that my music reviews are “visual” and my art reviews are “musical”!

What advice would you give someone who feels stuck – someone who’s inspired to do something (anything) creative and doesn’t know where to start?

Get out and get looking. Find something you care passionately about. Meet up with like-minded people, make new friends. Be open-minded and receptive to new ideas and possibilities. Don’t be blinkered or backward-looking. Get on the networks and see what others are doing. Live life to the full.

A good friend of mine, whom I met when I was pregnant with my son, comments on how confident I appear now, and I remind her that I wasn’t always like this, that I used to be quite shy and retiring. Such confidence was hard won and I used to find it quite daunting to rock up at a press event where I didn’t know anyone. But I’ve found that by talking to people, being friendly and interested goes a long way, and now I actively look forward to such events as a chance to meet new people and explore new projects and opportunities.

Lately, I have begun to explore the ideas of mindfulness, and trying to live each day as it comes without looking to far ahead, or going over what has been. A couple of events in my family over the past half year have made me realise that life is fragile and uncertain and that one should not spending too long pondering “what if”, but should simply get up and get on with the day, whatever it may throw at you. I suspect such an attitude develops with growing maturity and life experience (I am approaching 50).

Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson (photo by Cathy Hurley)

What’s next for you?

I made a conscious decision at the end of 2014 to do less to allow myself more time at the piano. My major focus for the next year or so is preparing for final Fellowship Performance Diploma (the equivalent of a post-grad qualification from conservatoire) and I am really enjoying the challenge of learning new and complex music (Schubert Sonata in A, D959) with the support of a number of mentors and pianist friends. I will continue to work on the concert series (South London Concert Series) and the piano group, and these activities have spawned some new things including a competition for adult amateur pianists and workshops for piano teachers. I find all these activities feed back into my creative and musical life, and enhance my own playing and teaching. Thinking more long term, I have considered working in artist management but whether this will happen remains to be seen. My husband is also trying to set up his own business and I may yet have a change of career and end up working with him, which could be interesting. Whatever happens, the piano and music will remain central in my life.


Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, teacher, writer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. In addition to running a popular private piano teaching practice, Frances is a keen concert-goer and writes music reviews for her blog, and also for international concert and opera listings site and art and exhibition reviews for US-based culture and arts site

A regular columnist for Pianist magazine’s online content, Frances also contributes guest posts to other classical music and music education websites around the world, including Clavier Companion, Making Music magazine and The Sampler, the blog of, the UK’s national charity for new music.

She is a passionate advocate of amateur pianism and co-hosts, with Lorraine Liyanage, the London Piano Meetup Group, which organises performances and social events for adult amateur pianists in and around London. Another recent initiative is the South London Concert Series, an innovative concert series which promotes young and emerging professional pianists and offers talented amateur musicians the opportunity to perform in the same formal concert setting.

Faith Dennis Morris

Faith Dennis

Faith Dennis

Tell us a bit about your job. What is the most challenging part of being a school principal? The most rewarding?

This is my 15th year as an Elementary School Principal.  After teaching for 17 years in Pre-K through 6th grade, I know what I appreciated and needed from my principal and have tried to be that for my teachers.  I love being around kids and watching them learn.  The most challenging part of my job is trying to help children whose parents don’t support their education.  The most rewarding part, though, is seeing the lightbulb go on over a child’s head when he or she cracks the code of reading or makes a discovery in Science.

Why did you start running? What keeps you going?

I started running 20 years ago after back surgery.  There is nothing like being unable to walk to make you want to MOVE!!  I started with one mile, which I was barely able to do at first.  Since then, I have completed 21 marathons and many more half marathons, 10K’s and 5K’s.  Most of the time, though, I am just running with friends, enjoying the beautiful area in which we live and catching up on what’s going on in each others’ lives.  Running has become a necessity for me – when work or injury gets in the way, I feel the loss deeply!

Carlsbad 2013

Carlsbad 2013

I’ve always thought of long distance running as such a solitary sport, but you seem to have a whole network of friends with you in this – can you tell us about that?

I belong to A Snail’s Pace Running Club (although many members are definitely NOT snails!).  I actually met my husband through the club as well as some of my closest friends.  The club provides both a group with whom to train, but also sponsors many social activities as well.

Do you practice meditation or yoga? Do you find running is actually a form of meditation for you?

I have tried yoga from time to time, but classes never seem to fit into my schedule.  Running, especially the occasional solitary run,  gives me time to think, work through problems and burn off tension.  Running is very cathartic – especially when I finish at my favorite spot looking out at the Pacific Ocean or I spot a group of deer on a quiet Sunday morning trail run.

What advice do you have for women who are stressed out from their jobs (or loss of jobs), family issues, or caring for elderly parents?

I think the keys to dealing with stress are 1) having an outlet, be it an activity such as running, tennis, skiing etc., or a creative endeavor, such as painting or playing an instrument,  2) letting your friends and family help you and 3) keeping your sense of humor.

I think it is hard for people to admit they need help, but when you realize that you are happy to support your friends however you can, it makes it easier to accept.  I have learned this lesson over and over in the last decade.  I have survived two incidents of breast cancer, became a Type I Diabetic, and most recently, developed thyroid eye disease which has temporarily prevented me from being able to drive.  Through it all, my friends and family have come through in amazing ways – from throwing me a “Chemo Shower” party at which I received gifts to soothe my body and soul as I endured the side effects of chemotherapy to most recently driving me to and from work each day so that I can continue to work.

Laughing keeps me sane…I could wallow in self-pity or obsess on worst case scenarios, but that wouldn’t change anything.  Sharing a laugh is the best medicine I know!

What’s next for you?

My immediate goals are getting my vision back 100% and training for some upcoming races.  Longer term, I see myself working as a principal for another 7 years and then retiring.  However, I would still like to stay active in the field of Education in some capacity.  I would love to travel more – there is so much of the world I have yet to see!

Devon Combs

Devon Combs - Beyond the Arena

Devon Combs – Beyond the Arena

Devon, can you tell us a little bit about your life before “Beyond the Arena?”

My life before Beyond the Arena was full of dresses, panty hose, high heels, showing houses and writing real estate contracts. I spent my days working as a residential realtor and talking about the appreciation value of slab granite countertops. In my free time, I was around horses as much as possible! I had a passion for helping people experience the healing benefits of being around these intuitive animals. I didn’t know how my passion would pan out professionally so I did a lot of volunteering at therapeutic riding centers. Well into my real estate career, I discovered a two-year certification course to become an equine gestalt coach (working with horses to help people) and I jumped at the opportunity.

When you traded in heels for cowboy boots, was it an abrupt change or had you already started “Beyond the Arena” while you were still in the business world?

Trading in high heels for cowgirl boots happened over time. I built Beyond the Arena and worked in real estate for three and a half years…it was hectic (and a lot of daily outfit swaps from pencil skirts into Wrangler jeans) but so worth it! If I wasn’t showing houses and talking about square footage I was out at the barn helping people process their emotions through connecting with horses. Real estate was a bridge career and I’m grateful I spent time in the business world learning about sales, marketing and time management. It gave me the confidence and savvy to make the leap to becoming an entrepreneur. After six and a half years, I cut the golden handcuffs of real estate and moved to a horse ranch in the country to go full time with Beyond the Arena. I haven’t looked back since!

Devon Combs - Beyond the Arena

Devon Combs – Beyond the Arena

What drew you to horses? What is it about horses that can bring healing to so many people, children and adults, alike?

I’ve been blessed to be around horses my whole life and I hail from a family of animal lovers. Both of my parents grew up with horses and I learned how to ride as a young girl. Thoughout my teens, I competed in horse shows, but it was the quiet moments in the barn that I cherished the most. Although I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, being in the presence of horses and their healing energy nourished my soul. When I sold my horse and went to college in California, I became homesick and depressed and developed an eating disorder. Bulimia took over my life and I dropped out of college. I ended up in a treatment center in Arizona that had equine therapy. I was reunited with horses and this time, there were no horse show ribbons involved. It was about becoming vulnerable, sharing my stuffed down feelings and being healed. Equine therapy saved my life and the light bulb went off that THIS is how I was supposed to work with horses. These majestic and intuitive animals had come back into my life full circle and it became my mission to share their healing gifts with others. At age 21, my passion was ignited and my purpose became clear (by way of a helluva rocky trail!)

What is your typical day like?

Devon Combs - Beyond the Arena

Devon Combs – Beyond the Arena

Today my typical day starts out with a cup of coffee, feeding my dog, putting on rubber boots and heading down to the barn to feed five horses. My morning workout consists of lifting and moving 50 pound hay bales, cleaning water troughs and filling grain buckets. In the spring and summer, I groom the horses and then hose down the arena in preparation for a private coaching client or weekend women’s retreat. Clients arrive by 9AM and most of the coaching happens in our indoor arena. At the end of the day, I feed all the horses again, take care of ranch chores, come up to the house and return emails and post pictures that I’ve taken that day. My days are a combination caring for animals, helping people experience healing and awakening with horses, driving tractors and being out on the land.

Throughout the winter, I coach clients over the phone and the ranch chores shift from mowing fields to plowing snow. My soul is happy here, I wouldn’t trade it in for the world.

Tell us about your “Beyond the Arena Retreats?” Can you give any examples of women’s transformations?

Beyond the Arena Retreats are one of a kind! They are for women who are on the self-discovery trail and whom are at a personal or professional crossroads in life. They are a safe and experiential environment for women to deepen to connection with themselves and others with the help of nature’s greatest teachers: horses! Through interactions with horses, we explore what limiting beliefs are keeping people stuck, how to tap into their intuition and how to move forward in their lives.

At a recent UNBRIDLED retreat, I lined up five orange cones down the center of the arena with a word on each cone: Specific, Measurable, Action, Reason and Time, also known as SMART Goals. The client, Jane, was supposed to lead Blue, the horse, down the line of cones, stating out loud what each cone represented for her.

Jane started at the Specific cone and shared aloud that her goal was to keep her dream consulting as a side business so she could keep her salary and benefits at her current job (which she hated.) Blue didn’t move an inch. The beautiful bay mare cocked her back hip and wouldn’t budge. Jane tugged on the lead rope to try to get her to walk to the next cone. Blue knew Jane wasn’t telling the truth and she picked up the incongruent energy between what Jane was saying and how she was feeling. You can’t fool a 1,200 intuitive animal!

Tired of trying to force Blue to move (and tired of trying to force herself to keeping slogging through a job she despised), Jane had tears in her eyes as her truth became clear. She took a deep breath and shared that her Specific goal was to create a plan to leave her current job so she could go full throttle with her consulting business. As she stated her truth, Blue immediately walked right next to her and kept walking to the next cone!

As prey animals horses are super sensitive to energy and sense when we are saying one thing but feeling another. They don’t judge but will give us direct and honest feedback. When we tap into our intuition and become congruent with what we are saying and feeling, horses will connect with us, every time. It’s the ultimate validation for showing up authentically and speaking your truth.

You’ve created a life you love. What advice would you give someone who feels stuck.

Beyond the Arena - UNBRIDLED Retreat

Beyond the Arena – UNBRIDLED Retreat

Often, we are stuck in the trap of what we “should do” and we dig ourselves into a rut. When we identify what we truly want (through taking action and trying new things and NOT just by thinking about it!) doors open and opportunities manifest.

If you feel stuck, keep trying new things. Keep experimenting and don’t settle until you discover what feeds your soul and energizes you. Follow your passions and curiosity. Let go of controlling how you “think it should look” and allow new opportunities to come your way. Have faith and keep following the trail of what you love. It will lead you to the right people, places (and horses!)

What’s next?

I have an UNBRIDLED Retreat in Arizona in February and my goal is to facilitate more national retreats. I want to share the healing gifts of horses with as many people possible so that others can follow their passions and turn their dream into a reality.

Devon Combs is a lifelong horsewoman, certified equine gestalt coach and the CEO of Beyond the Arena. She teaches women how to live an UNBRIDLED life. She walks her talk as a strong, sensitive, adventurous, spiritual, entrepreneurial cowgirl. Devon’s retreats are one-of-a-kind experiences to help women have fun, feel safe and supported in a group, and to experience the ultimate freedom through transformational connections with horses. Be sure to visit Beyond the Arena to see what’s new and follow Devon on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Leigh Medeiros

Leigh Medeiros

Leigh Medeiros

Leigh, it seems like creativity has entered every aspect of your life, from your art, your writing and now your creative entrepreneurship. What was it that started you down this path? A grade school teacher? Your parents’ influence?

I had an experience when I was 5 years old where a poem came to me fully formed, and I transcribed it — in a sky blue crayon — onto a little scrap of paper. It was such a powerful and wondrous experience for me since it felt like channeling. I can remember thinking, “I didn’t write this.” I knew that it was good and somehow more sophisticated than my own writing ability, and I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around that. I think that moment was a catalyst for a lifelong pursuit of creativity.

You’ve been a teacher, a screenwriter, a producer and director, an artist, a gallery owner and much more. Did you ever imagine you’d wear so many hats? Did one thing lead to another or are you always attracted to a new challenge?

I’m definitely a curiosity addict. I love trying new things. Part of wearing so many hats comes from that place, which I think is quite positive. But, the other side of it, which I grapple with all the time, is overcoming a fear of commitment. It’s always been hard for me to decide to do something with 100% of my time, energy and attention. That’s how the drive for curiosity can be a negative. It can pull me off my path. That said, it’s not like I’ve worn all of these hats for a couple weeks then moved on. I mean, I’ve been involved with screenwriting and filmmaking for 15 years. I worked in galleries for years and owned my own gallery for two years. So while there hasn’t been incredible longevity in each pursuit, I do feel I have a very well-rounded view of various types of creative paths and mediums. That’s been a real benefit to me as someone who supports and encourages other artists. I feel I have a good handle on the challenges that are specific to each path in addition to those creative challenges that are universal.

Leigh Medeiros Screenwriter

Leigh Medeiros Screenwriter

What is your typical day like? Do you have one part of the day where you find you’re at your creative peak?

Unfortunately there’s no such thing as typical! On a scale from “willy nilly” to “total discipline” I’m way over on the willy nilly side. However, in the past year or two I’ve gotten much better about having some routines in place. As strange as it sounds, having a dog really helps that. These days, I wake between 6 and 6:30. I do about 40 minutes of gentle yoga and breathing exercises. Then, I sit at my altar and express my gratitude for everything in my life. Then I shuffle a deck of oracle cards and ask, “What should I keep in mind today?” I use the card that I pull as an anchor I can go back to during the day. I have some other practices that act as anchors too. Things like a mission statement and other inspired texts that help me focus. Next, I feed the dog and walk her for about an hour. I live on a wooded peninsula by the beach so I get a lot of inspiration by being outside. It’s essential for me to have time in nature every day. I always bring my camera with me, and I take a daily “Good morning from Rhode Island” photo that I upload to Facebook. When I get home I eat breakfast. By then it’s about 9. After that, all hell breaks loose! I spend too much time online, too much time wandering around the house, too much time staring into the refrigerator. These are the perils of working from home, and the reason why it’s important to have anchors to go back to. Somehow by 6 p.m. I’ve managed to send emails, plan new programs, facilitate online courses, make paintings and keep moving forward. The evenings are spent cooking dinner, hanging out with my boyfriend, and watching some well-written scripted TV.

Leigh with a donkey

Leigh on a road trip pit stop, with Carmelita the donkey

Nature and spirituality are important to you and you say they go hand-in-hand with adventure. How so?

I am a consummate road tripper. I’ve driven across and around the U.S. probably twelve times. When you’re road tripping (without having to rush to your destination), you allow yourself to explore and be lead intuitively; you are fully in the moment. Because of that, incredible serendipity happens. The right people, places, and things show up exactly when you need them. It’s hard to recreate that openness and “in-the-momentness” on a daily basis, but that’s part of my morning walks in nature. It’s the one hour of the day that I can follow my nose and just see what arrives. Often it’s pretty magical.

I remember wearing the “starving artist” label like a badge of honor when I was in my 20s. What is your best advice to a young person who might be romanticizing the life of the “starting artist?”

Oh boy, there’s so much to dig into about the whole starving artist archetype. I actually teach an 8 week e-course a couple of times a year called “Starving Artist No More,” so it’s an issue near and dear to my heart. I whole-heartedly believe that creative people are the soul of the world and that it’s time for us to stop keeping ourselves down. A lot of starving artists are folks who see the sickness inherent in our socio-political systems and want to keep themselves outside of that, which is totally understandable. I think, however, we need to transform the system from the inside out. We need to redefine the role of artist in our culture and restore its standing to a place of reverence and power. To young people starting out in the arts — or any artist, really — I say don’t give your power away. Don’t buy into the brainwashing around art being a luxury, or artists being flaky dreamers. Focus on what you’re devoted to, but find ways to do it that are sustainable. Band together and create community around you. Make friends with money and know that it’s your greatest fuel. Let yourself receive abundance so you can make more artwork. Don’t waste your life trying to make ends meet when the world needs you to be shining your creative light. And, mostly, find a way to tap into your inner confidence and stay in your strength.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m finishing up a screenplay I was hired to write and am focused on creating a sustainable, daily painting practice. I’m also working on a picture book that’s based on a recent series of night sky paintings I’ve been working on. I am in the midst of planning some artist events in my home. (My boyfriend is a carpenter and he just built me a gorgeous ten person table from reclaimed wood.) On top of that, I want to keep supporting and encouraging other artists to grow and shine, so more online courses are sure to be in the roster for 2015.

Leigh MedeirosLeigh Medeiros has been an exhibiting mixed media artist for much of the last twenty years. She has worked in various fine art galleries and art-related non-profits, and also owned her own gallery for two years. She’s an award-winning screenwriter and two-time Screenwriting Merit Fellow through her home state of Rhode Island. As a reporter with and regional travel blogger for the (now defunct), Leigh wrote more than 100 published articles and posts on art, culture and the environment. Recently, she associate produced the movie THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE, created a short video about an artist with leukemia that was released nationally through the Newport Folk Fest and SPIN magazine, and directed/produced a book trailer for children’s book author Anika Denise. She mentors and inspires other artists through her website Follow Leigh on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.